Doña Vera left another Clemente legacy
In the case of Vera Clemente, or Doña Vera as she was better known, she was indeed married – to Hall of Fame legend Roberto Clemente. But she was also an exceptional woman in her own right.
A graduate of the University of Puerto Rico, Cristina Vera Zabala used her degree in business administration to work as a teller at a government bank in Carolina, Puerto Rico – Roberto’s hometown. It was there, running an errand at the drugstore across the street, that Vera first encountered the future Hall of Famer.
Roberto returned home to Puerto Rico at the end of every season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and by the start of 1964 the outfielder was already a four-time All Star and three-time Gold Glove Award winner. He saw Vera while driving past the drugstore, and quickly pulled over, walked into the store and introduced himself.
“If he had died in a common way, people would still remember him,” Vera told Claire Smith in a 1994 interview with the New York Times. “But Dec. 31 (1972), it was a special day and his was a special mission. I admire him for that, as a person, as a human being.”
It was a day that shattered the world, and one that changed baseball in ways we still experience today. The Commissioner’s Award was renamed in his honor, and the mandatory five-year waiting period to elect him to the Hall of Fame was waived. Clemente became the first Latin American to earn election, and Major League Baseball commemorates his legacy annually with Roberto Clemente Day.
“He was planning for the next four years before he died. That was Roberto. He was adding every day and he got up with a new idea every morning.” Vera took those plans and transformed them into actions, with her first project being the realization of Roberto’s dream to create a sports center for young people in Puerto Rico.
Ciudad Deportiva Roberto Clemente, the Roberto Clemente Sports City, was established in 1976 under her leadership. It was enormous – a sprawling assortment of baseball diamonds, tennis courts, basketball courts, dormitories and other facilities spread across 303 acres of government-donated land. Building it took years, and considerable fundraising efforts.
“It’s more than work,” she said in 1994. “My time is here. I never take a vacation.”
Vera Clemente passed away on Nov. 16, 2019, leaving behind an incredible legacy not even Roberto could have imagined.
Isabelle Minasian was the digital content specialist for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum